CREATING A CREOLE KITCHEN: THE ESSENTIALS
Criollo was the term the Spanish used for their cooking, but New Orleanians quickly christened it Creole. Call it what you choose, but don’t think it’s ordinary. Creoles are fiercely proud of their particular culture and heritage, which they consider more sophisticated than that of their Cajun country cousins.
Creole culture and heritage go back to the European settlers of New Orleans who were predominately of French and Spanish ancestry. Most were from wealthy families and either brought their personal chefs with them to New Orleans or sent for chefs from Europe. Many of the ingredients the chefs normally used in their cooking were unavailable locally. New Orleans Governor Bienville, afraid of losing the new settlers, asked his personal cook to share with the Creole chefs his unique skills, techniques, and use of the native ingredients. A “recipe” showing the components of the Creole cuisine:
A RECIPE FOR CREOLE COOKING
5 parts French cuisine (butter, cream)
1 ½ parts Spanish cuisine (spices, red peppers, rice)
1 part Native American cuisine (filé powder, local herbs and spices)
1 part African cuisine (okra, yams)
1 part Italian cuisine (tomatoes, garlic)
½ part German cuisine (mustard, black pepper)
1. Add a smattering of skill from the Portuguese, Canary islanders, Caribbeans, Mediterraneans, and South Americans.
2. Import chefs from Europe, blend in local ingredients indigenous to New Orleans and surrounding areas, use Choctaw Indians as teachers, and prepare in the classic French style of cooking.
3. Relish the contributions of each influx of immigrants who added their own ingredients to the pot to form what is known as Creole cooking.
Creole cooking is city cooking; refined, delicate and luxurious. It was developed and originally prepared by servants, with a great emphasis on cream and butter. The result was rich sauces, elegant pureed bisques, time intensive soups, brunch dishes, and desserts.
Creoles and their cooks discovered the wonderful shellfish, snapper, pompano, and other forms of seafood available in Louisiana. Native meats and game, and unfamiliar produce including mirlitons and cushaw, sugar cane and pecans, were then adapted to the European cookery methods of the now-Creole chefs. To make yours a Creole kitchen:
INGREDIENTS FOR A CREOLE PANTRY
With the following 10 items you can make most Creole dishes by adding a main ingredient, and serving over rice.
oil or butter
hot pepper sauce (Tabasco® is a favorite)
salt and pepper
1. For most savory dishes, make a base (roux) by heating the oil or butter and flour and slowly cooking to a golden brown or very dark brown, depending on the desired flavor and thickening power.
2. Add onions, celery and bell pepper and cook until softened and well-blended with the roux.
3. Add main ingredient (meat or poultry), garlic, bay leaves, thyme, hot pepper sauce, and salt and pepper, plus enough water to completely cover the food.
4. Cook for 2-3 hours, until the main ingredient is tender (if making a seafood dish cook the above mixture and add seafood only for the last few minutes, to avoid overcooking).
The spices and other ingredients in Creole cooking are carefully balanced so that each bite is exciting, but no single ingredient predominates over any other. The thoughtfully added seasonings are intended to excite the palate without overwhelming it. Contrary to common belief, Creole food is not hot—so don’t confuse spices with spicy. Most if not all ingredients for a Creole kitchen can be found in, or ordered from, your supermarket:
COMMON INGREDIENTS FOR A CREOLE KITCHEN
shellfish (crab [soft-shell, buster, blue-claw]), crawfish, shrimp, oysters, dried shrimp
fin fish (pompano, red snapper, trout, flounder)
game (duck, quail, squab, rabbit)
meat (beef, pork, ham, veal, lamb)
tomatoes (fresh or canned)
white and cayenne pepper
stocks, long-simmered and flavorful
white and red wine
LESS COMMON INGREDIENTS FOR A CREOLE PANTRY
Creole cream cheese
crab and shrimp boil sesoning
chicory (for coffee)
Satsumas (Mandarin oranges grown in South Louisiana))
fish fry (finely-ground corn flour to coat foods to be fried)
Creoles adhere to their age old traditions of elegant dining and a relaxed lifestyle in which friends and family are of utmost importance. These people have such a love of food that shortcuts are not an option. Stocks are cooked long and slow, roux can take up to an hour to make, and foods are seasoned and tasted as each new ingredient is added. They are dedicated to every dish and love cooking as much as they love eating the results of their labor. It is this dedication and refusal to compromise on time that results in the amazing flavors gently coaxed from the foods.
Another quality of extreme importance to Creole people is their refusal to waste food; everything is used. Wonderful puddings result from leftover rice and bread; Pain Perdue (lost bread) is made from leftover French bread. The day’s gumbo is often determined by what is remaining from the previous night’s meal. Jambalaya, as well, uses ingredients on hand, often stretched by a bit of seafood or sausage. Bones from meat and poultry are used in other dishes or saved to use in stocks, as are scraps from vegetables and fish.
The Creole people take their cooking very seriously. Don’t argue with them about your recipe being better than theirs or you will lose. Their recipes do not come from a book, as they are likely to have been passed down from previous generations.
They probably make their dishes just the way their great-grandmothers made them. Creoles resist change. They strongly believe that if something is just right, there is no reason to experiment or alter a recipe...and they don’t.